The Press Has Never Been More Vital to the Survival of Democracy: 2018 Theodore H. White Lecture by Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer
By Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer
Renowned journalists Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer delivered the 29th Annual Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics, a conversation with Shorenstein Center director Nicco Mele building on their original essay titled “The Press Has Never Been More Vital to the Survival of Democracy”, which is available to read below.
In the essay, Abramson and Mayer discuss the “brutal” Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation battle, reflecting on the “inferno of partisan politics” surrounding the hearings and drawing parallels with their own groundbreaking coverage of the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation. Amid fierce partisan attacks on the legitimacy of the press, Abramson and Mayer offer a vigorous defense of the media’s role as “the voice of objective fact” in our society, and outline their proposals on how news organizations can rebuild audience trust through deep reporting and “slow journalism”. Abramson and Mayer then discussed the essay and its wider themes in conversation with Nicco Mele on Tuesday, October 16, 2018, at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School. The full video of the event follows, which also included the presentation of the David Nyhan Prize for Political Journalism to David Von Drehle, political columnist for the Washington Post.
“The Press Has Never Been More Vital to the Survival of Democracy,” by Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer
In one brief afternoon of Senate hearings this fall, Brett Kavanaugh tossed yet another revered American institution into the inferno of partisan politics. Faced during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings with multiple credible accusations of sexual misconduct, Kavanaugh clung to the axiom that the best defense is a good offense. As he reframed it, the issue was not his own conduct, but rather that of his accuser. Providing no evidence, he went on to accuse her of having concocted her allegations against him in “a calculated and orchestrated political hit, fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election.”
In a previous round of hearings, Kavanaugh had paid homage to traditional judicial norms, promising that he would act as an impartial umpire, who would “call balls and strikes and not … pitch or bat.” But after a morning of wrenching testimony in which a California research psychologist, Christine Blasey Ford, accused him of having attempted to rape her when they were both teenagers, he destroyed all pretense of political impartiality both for himself and the U.S. Supreme Court. He argued that Ford had not come forward to tell the truth, but instead to take “revenge on behalf of the Clintons,” in some kind of vague but monstrous political plot.
“Essentially what he did is he took his mask off and he revealed himself as a politician who wears a robe,” Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson explained.
The shock waves from Kavanaugh’s brutally partisan confirmation fight have yet to be measured. Whether they will galvanize the Right or the Left, or anyone in between during the 2018 Midterm elections and beyond, has yet to be seen.
But for the press, one lesson from the Kavanaugh confirmation fight is already clear. It was yet another political clash in which the truth was little more than an inconvenient obstacle for partisans to overcome. The lesson was made more pointedly still when a limited F.B.I. investigation – which had been touted as the tie-breaking, fact-finding answer to the stalemate – instead turned out to be so tightly controlled by the White House that dozens of would-be witnesses and corroborators who resorted to sending statements to the federal investigators never even received a reply. For news reporters dedicated to facts, evidence, and accuracy, it was another disturbing indication that at this moment in American history, the rules and assumptions that govern the press have almost no sway over those in power.
But for the press, one lesson from the Kavanaugh confirmation fight is already clear. It was yet another political clash in which the truth was little more than an inconvenient obstacle for partisans to overcome.
In an era of almost unprecedented partisan political polarization, the news media may be the last nonpartisan voice in our national discourse. This, of course, is far from the way that the Trump administration and other politically-motivated critics have tried to portray it. It is to their advantage to try to denigrate and undermine the press in hopes of usurping its role, and twisting facts to serve their own purposes. But as truth is increasingly subjugated to political expediency, the news media’s role as the voice of objective fact, and as an impartial check on power, has never been more threatened, or more needed. At such a time, it is essential that – competitive and varied though the different voices within the profession are – we must come together to define and defend our constitutional right and distinct role.
This moment of inflection has been long coming. For us, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process was literally history repeating itself. A generation before, we served to our own surprise, as the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. As political reporters for the Wall Street Journal, we were fascinated by the explosive but unverified charges and counter-charges that emerged during Clarence Thomas’s 1991 Supreme Court confirmation fight. So, we got a book contract, and took a leave together in hopes of figuring out where the truth lay. At the outset any outcome seemed possible, and we were eager to write it, regardless of politics, as we had other stories for years.
Like Kavanaugh, Thomas was a conservative nominee charged with sexual misconduct by a woman, in his case, law professor Anita Hill. As it turned out, we spent three years investigating the facts, which resulted in our book “Strange Justice.” Unexpectedly, “Strange Justice” was a primer on just about everything that happened once Christine Blasey Ford charged Judge Kavanaugh with sexual misconduct. A credible accuser, reluctant at first to go public, ended up responding to the call of citizenship because she felt a duty to report information that called into question the nominee’s fitness for the job. An angry, defiant Supreme Court nominee categorically denied the charges. A rushed and jury-rigged Senate hearing gave short-shrift to additional corroborators, resulting inevitably in a ‘he said/she said’ stalemate. Emotion, not reason, dominated the faux trial. From the start, the process aimed, it seemed, to arrive at the conclusion that as one Republican said of Blasey Ford’s allegations a generation later, “the truth of these long ago events can never be known.”
For us, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process was literally history repeating itself. A generation before, we served to our own surprise, as the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. As political reporters for the Wall Street Journal, we were fascinated by the explosive but unverified charges and counter-charges that emerged during Clarence Thomas’s 1991 Supreme Court confirmation fight.
This was all eerily familiar to the two of us. There were substantial differences of course. In 1991, Hill had accused Thomas of sexually harassing her in the workplace, while in 2018 Ford accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a high school social gathering. But both ended exactly the same way. A credible and preternaturally composed accuser was met with a furious, categorical denial in which the accused claimed to be the victim of some larger political plot – in Thomas’ case, a “high-tech lynching” ostensibly motivated by racism, despite the fact that Hill, like he, was also African-American. A stalemate resulted, in which the Senate gave the judge the benefit of the doubt and a lifetime seat on the Court. As in 2018, the Judiciary Committee in 1991 was certain that, as was said at the time, “we will never know the truth.”
As reporters dedicated to ferreting out facts without fear or favor, we rejected the convenient political fib that the truth could never be known, and set off to find it. But when three years’ worth of painstaking reporting led overwhelmingly to the conclusion that Thomas had almost certainly lied under oath in order to get confirmed, an odd thing happened. Although neither of us had previously been accused of being political combatants, and despite both of us having worked for a newspaper rarely associated with liberalism, we were targeted by Thomas’ conservative defenders as politically-motivated purveyors of what later became known as “fake news.” The American Spectator, an arch-conservative publication, ran a lengthy cover story claiming we were the most heinous liars in print since Janet Cooke, the Washington Post reporter who infamously faked a Pulitzer Prize winning story. Before long, even a few respectable news outlets, including CBS’s top-rated news show, 60 Minutes, threatened to do their own exposés on us, although thank goodness, they backed off once we had walked them through the details and solidity of our reporting.
A decade later, the author of the American Spectator’s screed, David Brock, backed off too, admitting that it had been he, not we, who had lied, and apologizing to us, and to Hill, for his falsehoods. As he explained in his subsequent confessional book, “Blinded By the Right,” he and his political allies on the Right had regarded their ideological ends as justifying almost any means, including attacking the truth, and those in the media who told it.
Brock may have recanted, but the political playbook he used in 1994, when “Strange Justice” was published, is more commonplace than ever a quarter century later. The intervening years have seen the growth of sprawling networks of politically partisan think tanks and media outlets, in which the basic research model of the Enlightenment is inverted so that ideological conclusions shape research and reporting, rather than the other way around. The internet has exponentially expanded the reach of these previously siloed partisans.
Those engaged in the old-fashioned pursuit of fact-based truth have been barraged by purveyors of what Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, called “Alternative Facts.”
The New York Times has tried to keep a running tally of these “alternative facts,” that lengthens almost daily. Fact-checking has become a cottage industry – one of the few growth areas, perhaps, in the journalism field. It’s not just our own media at home who are waging this battle – similar attacks have been launched on the truth, and those who tell it, by regimes around the world. At home, of course, these attacks have included an effort to undermine the credibility of the independent news media as “fake news,” and those who write it as “Enemies of the American People.”
The targets range beyond mere journalists, to the sources of fact that the mainstream media relies on. All manner of independent, fact-based research has come under attack, ranging from the economic analyses by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office to research done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Among the most worrisome of these attacks have been those on the scientific community in general, and on the science of climate change in particular, which President Trump memorably denounced during the 2016 campaign as a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese.
As a result, large swaths of the population are being purposefully, and constantly misled. Our political system is reeling from the blow. Charlie Sykes, the former right-wing radio talk show host, has described the fallout well. “The cumulative effect of the attacks” on fact-based media, he has said, has been “to delegitimize those outlets, and essentially destroy much of the Right’s immunity to false information.” He added, “All administrations lie, but what we are seeing here is an attack on credibility itself.”
Clearly, this has been an unhappy season for truth.
What then, is the proper response of journalists to a President who, in brutal language, brands almost all types of accurate reporting, including most recently, the sworn testimony against a Supreme Court nominee, as “a campaign of political and personal destruction based on lies and deception”?
How should professional reporters, trained to keep a distanced, analytic eye on what they cover, accurately reflect the dysfunction that surrounds them? How does the press fulfill its constitutional mission to provide accurate information to the public and hold power accountable in this environment?
We are actually living in a golden age of investigative reporting, the kind of work to which both of us have devoted decades of our careers. From our vantage point, truth is very much alive and the press is one of the only institutions right now that is actually functioning as it should.
There’s a spirited debate about all of this within our profession right now. Some of our colleagues have called for journalists to be much tougher in covering President Trump, and for news organizations to band together to more deeply investigate corruption in the administration. Others argue that journalists must be more scrupulous than ever to avoid seeming partisan, or so much as giving the appearance of being at war with the Trump administration, as the belief that we are all biased, out-of-touch liberals is already one of the reasons that public trust in the news media is at a low point. In the midst of this confusion, there isn’t even agreement on whether to call the President’s lies, lies.
One clear approach, it seems to us, is to just double down, and do what we do best: keep on getting the most important stories of the day, without fear or favor. As Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist put it recently, those in power may try to misconstrue it when we hold them to account, but this “isn’t resistance, it’s reporting.” And in fact, despite the challenging climate created by President Trump’s disdain, journalists have rarely worked harder or done better or more vital work. We are actually living in a golden age of investigative reporting, the kind of work to which both of us have devoted decades of our careers. From our vantage point, truth is very much alive and the press is one of the only institutions right now that is actually functioning as it should.
One would have to look back to the original Gilded Age, at the turn of the 20th Century, to find as strong a journalistic outpouring. It’s an era that the two of us studied as teenagers while attending Fieldston, a private school in New York City that inculcated in both of us a strong sense of ethics and a desire to serve the public. Far from their hard-bitten images, many investigative reporters are actually idealists who believe that by exposing wrongs, they can help right them. Such was the tradition of the original Muckrakers, the reform-minded journalists at the turn of the 20th Century who investigated and exposed the political and economic corruption and social hardships caused by the untrammeled power of big business in a rapidly industrializing United States. Their stories, exposing shocking labor conditions, disgusting public health threats, and corrupt corporate practices, led to the nation’s first antitrust and child labor laws. The Muckrakers brought into existence many of the regulatory and consumer protections that the Trump Administration and the Republican Congress are today trying to abolish. And interestingly, a number of the muckrakers, including the formidable Ida Tarbell, were women.
“What Would Ida Do?”
Her legacy, at least for us, has become almost an in-joke. When either us hits a wall while working on a story, we’ve been known to call each other and, in trying to think through how to get around whatever roadblock we’ve hit, we’ll ask, “What Would Ida Do?”
Tarbell, one of the most famous Muckrakers, was nothing if not dogged. She spent two years investigating John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Company, then the largest company in the world. She traveled all over the country, collecting obscure land records in local title offices to document the strong-arm tactics used by Rockefeller against rivals, railroad companies, ranchers, farmers and anyone else who stood in his way. The key that unlocked the story for her was the discovery of an obscure company, the South Improvement Company, which was at the root of Standard Oil’s illegal schemes to buy up all the land where oil could be drilled. Tarbell organized the voluminous material into a cogent history. Her investigation, published in 18 installments, resulted in the eventual breakup of Standard Oil and passage of the nation’s first antitrust laws.
Today, Tarbell’s writing on Rockefeller seems eerily prescient. “Very often people who admit the facts, who are willing to see that Mr. Rockefeller has employed force and fraud to secure his ends, justify him by declaring, ‘it’s business.’” Tarbell then issued a timeless warning: “Canonize ‘business success’ and men who make a success like that of Standard Oil Trust become national heroes!”
On October 3, when The New York Times published its exhaustive investigation into Donald Trump’s wealth, the three reporters who worked for more than a year on it were upholding Ida Tarbell’s legacy. They collected more than 100,000 documents in the most thorough investigation yet of the businessman president who has tried to canonize and mythologize his self-made success. Just as Tarbell found an obscure company at the root of Standard Oil’s corruption, the Times unlocked the fraud and rapacity behind the Trump fortune with the discovery of an unknown entity called All County Building Supply. Despite all the attention focused on the President’s various business deals, there had never been a mention of the company in any other stories.
David Barstow, an investigative reporter who has won numerous Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting, was one of the three reporters who collaborated on the investigation. “It’s unusual to dive into what you think is an extremely well-covered subject and to find so much completely new stuff, stuff that just is astonishing,” Mr. Barstow said. “It’s a great reminder that even [for] things that you think are well described, there are these other deeper layers.”
Exploring the deeper layers is exactly how reporters must cover the Trump administration.
This is the essence of what used to be called muckraking and today is called great investigative journalism. Barstow and Suzanne Craig, one of the other reporters on the team, had already collaborated on a story during the 2016 campaign that revealed that Donald Trump had paid virtually no taxes for many years, pursuing legally dubious loopholes and other tax avoidance strategies. That story by itself was a blockbuster, but they kept going.
Their more recent exploration of the deeper layers showed that the president participated in numerous dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including outright fraud, and that he wasn’t the self-made billionaire he has claimed to be. That arcane building supply company was used as a vehicle to transfer his father’s wealth–more than $400 million—to Trump and his siblings, who fraudulently minimized the enormous gift taxes they would have otherwise owed. The New York authorities immediately vowed to review these old transactions. The President, predictably, discounted the story in a tweet that boiled down to, basically, “It’s business.”
“The Failing New York Times did something I have never seen done before,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “They used the concept of ‘time value of money’ in doing a very old, boring and often told hit piece on me.” His response echoed the one Tarbell encountered: “It’s business.”
The advent of an American president publicly castigating news stories, organizations, and even specific reporters by name, was unthinkable until the Trump Administration. Certainly, earlier presidents have often resented the press and disliked certain reporters. But out of respect for the institution of the Fourth Estate, they largely kept their sentiments from public view, relegating their contempt to private papers such as Nixon’s enemies list, or open mic gaffes, such as the moment during the George W. Bush Administration when Vice President Dick Cheney was caught seconding the president’s less than flattering epithet for New York Times’ Washington correspondent, Adam Clymer, adding his own phrase, “big time.”
Yet despite such disparagement, the major news outlets have been thriving. It is scary to think what these last years would have been like without The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and other news organizations that do superlative investigative reporting. We would know little about the dimensions of the Mueller probe. Reporters from The Times and The Post have engaged in a back-and-forth battle for scoops in what Vanity Fair has rightly called “the last great newspaper war.” In May, 2017, the two newspapers each maintained a breathless pace of daily revelations, including disclosing the memos James Comey had made before his firing, and that the President passed classified intelligence to the Russian ambassador. The Columbia Journalism Review called it “The ten best days of journalism.”
The Wall Street Journal too has done pivotal work on the strands of the Mueller investigation involving payoffs by Trump to pornographic film star, and his self-proclaimed paramour, Stormy Daniels, as well as on the suppression of news stories about Trump’s sexual liaisons with women. The New Yorker has done deep reporting on secretive donors behind Trump’s rise to power, such as hedge fund magnate Robert Mercer. It has also chronicled the full story of British spy Christopher Steele’s effort to blow the whistle on the Russian machinations during the 2016 campaign. The Times meanwhile, has provided a public service by publishing a special section on Russian election meddling, “Unravelling the Russia Story So Far,” which brought all the threads together into a single narrative that made the investigation comprehensible to readers. This section took tremendous expertise, the involvement of national security reporters and foreign correspondents and command of an immense amount of material. Synthesizing and contextualizing in the way that only careful, professional journalists can do.
Thankfully, these news organizations have the money and muscle to do long, costly investigations. In the Internet age, where breaking news never stops, they also give their reporters the luxury of time to peel back the layers and find the most significant revelations. Asked once what it takes to be able to write books as revelatory as Robert Caro’s biographic volumes on Lyndon Johnson, Caro replied in one word, “time.” To tackle, unravel, and explain global corruption on the scale afflicting many governments today, including our own, there is simply no substitute for giving reporters the time necessary to find and tell the story behind the story.
From experience, we are both believers in slow journalism. We spent three years of our lives re-reporting every aspect of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill story. We found hundreds of people who knew them both and inspected every phase of their lives, assembling evidence piece by piece. We did not go in with preconceptions, but rather with a determination to collect as much evidence as possible and then render a judgment solely on where the weight of that evidence led. As was true in the Kavanaugh hearing, we found witnesses who the public never heard from, and who had critical information. We found new corroborators for Hill, and people who had knowledge about Clarence Thomas’ enthusiasm for exactly the kind of pornography Hill had described in her testimony. But it took three years of digging to write the definitive story, which we published in our best-selling book, “Strange Justice”. And even then, there were other sources who we knew of, who still declined to come forward. Even this past year, we ‘door stopped’ a woman who we believed had additional knowledge of Thomas’ behavior. She invited us into her front foyer, but then declined to comment, even all these years later. It is hard to convey the amount of fear that such potential sources feel when speaking out against someone as powerful as a Supreme Court Justice, but with determination, and the passage of time, we have faith that almost all facts eventually surface.
At a time when readers feel deluged by the onslaught of news alerts, and bombarded by fragments of Twitter-length items lacking context, characters, and comprehensive analysis, there is more need than ever for the kind of journalism that can connect the dots into meaningful coverage.
Slow though “Strange Justice” was, it took even longer – approximately five years – for Jane to write her 2016 book, “Dark Money,” which the New York Times named as one of the ten best books of the year. It entailed hundreds of interviews, dozens of boxes of documents, and a three hundred page chronology, in order to untangle the money trail of the billionaire patrons of conservative libertarianism, Kansas oilmen Charles and David Koch, and a handful of other outsized but secretive donors to American politics. In the course of researching the 2010 New Yorker profile of the Koch brothers on which the book drew, Jane got an early taste of the animosity that would come to characterize the Trump Administration’s attitude towards the press. In an effort to undermine her reputation, the Kochs went so far as to hire private investigators to try to dig up dirt on her. When they found none, the investigators concocted a case claiming she had plagiarized from several peers, which fell apart when the ostensible victims took her side against the Kochs, calling the charges absurd.
We are not here to celebrate ourselves, but to call for a broad revival of slow journalism and of fearless, fact-based, nonpartisan muckraking. We realize what we are urging runs counter to the rhythms of the Internet and the impatient attention spans of readers who demand to know the news the instant it happens. But at a time when readers feel deluged by the onslaught of news alerts, and bombarded by fragments of Twitter-length items lacking context, characters, and comprehensive analysis, there is more need than ever for the kind of journalism that can connect the dots into meaningful coverage.
We also believe there is a dire need for a revival of local news. In an era when the media has lost much of the public’s trust, and the president can brand serious, factual coverage “fake news,” nothing stands a better chance of restoring faith in the press than the reappearance of local reporters in small communities where they are known, watched, and covering stories that the local populace knows are anything but fake.
We know this too runs counter to current economic trends that are gutting newsrooms and closing state house and local bureaus. Print advertising has all but disappeared, and Facebook and Google have gobbled up the lion’s share of digital ad revenue. Quality regional papers that published important, Pulitzer-Prize-winning-caliber investigations have either cut completely or downsized their investigative reporting units. We believe this is not only a grave journalistic mistake, but bad business, too.
Quality regional papers that published important, Pulitzer-Prize-winning-caliber investigations have either cut completely or downsized their investigative reporting units. We believe this is not only a grave journalistic mistake, but bad business, too.
It is true that the digital disruption of the past decade broke the business model for newspapers, which have done, until recent years, the most significant investigative work. In their place have come digital news operations that, with a few exceptions, break few original investigative stories. With the rise of the Internet came the mantra, “news wants to be free.”
Websites depended on clickable, viral headlines to build their audiences, prioritizing stories that pleased and entertained, stories that were shareable on Facebook and other social media platforms. They were easily consumed and rarely remembered.
Jill’s book, “Merchants of Truth,” to be published in January, focuses on how four news companies, two traditional newspapers and two digital natives, navigated the decade of disruption, invented new business models, only to encounter new challenges from the social media tech giants. There is certainly no business model that will save all news organizations. But recent trends give us hope. With the fake news scandals that have beset Facebook, people are once again looking for trusted news sources. And they are showing a new willingness to pay for quality news.
The Times has more than 3 million paying subscribers, many with online access only. The Post has a million. The Journal, with its business-focused readers, was one of the first publications to require payment for its website and it has nearly 1.4 million. These numbers swelled following the 2016 election and although some analysts predicted the so-called Trump bump wouldn’t last, subscribers have continued to sign up. Their digital subscription plans are successful because the news they provide is of singular quality and can’t be found anywhere else. These news organizations are citadels of slow journalism and enterprise reporting.
Local readers once looked to their newspapers to be their watchdogs against corruption and need that protection now more than ever.
As digital advertising has proven to be an unstable source of revenue for original news-gathering, reader revenue has become the best and most secure route to stability. But in order to get readers to pay for news, the news has to be worth paying for. That’s why the most challenged part of the news media, local newspapers, must reclaim their watchdog roles. It may sound unrealistic, but hiring a few investigative reporters may be the surest way to establish a reader revenue stream of paid digital circulation. By abandoning investigative reporting, local newspapers have betrayed their readers, leaving local city councils and even state legislatures virtually uncovered. Local readers once looked to their newspapers to be their watchdogs against corruption and need that protection now more than ever. Will they pay to see this function restored? It’s impossible to know until it is tried. The vulture funds like Alden Capital that have taken over from local ownership are unlikely to invest, but others may recapture lost audiences by delivering real enterprise reporting.
Many of us believed that the best strategy for countering Fox was to ignore it and carry on with our work. We assumed the public would see and appreciate the difference, as would those in power. But that strategy hasn’t worked.
But none of this, on its own, may be enough.
There are very real obstacles, besides financial ones, that pollute the news environment. Over the last two decades, the most harmful had been the sustained attack on the traditional nonpartisan news media by Fox News, since its launch by Roger Ailes in 1996. The right wing’s false claims of liberal media bias have gone unanswered for too long. Many of us believed that the best strategy for countering Fox was to ignore it and carry on with our work. We assumed the public would see and appreciate the difference, as would those in power. But that strategy hasn’t worked.
Fox, which traffics in false conspiracies on a nightly basis, has effectively become the Trump White House’s official news agency. The transition of Fox’s former Co-President, Bill Shine, to Trump’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications, and of the Trump White House’s former head of communications, Hope Hicks, to the top public relations post at Fox, cements the impression that the network and the administration are so interwoven, Fox is virtually Trump’s Pravda. Fox is more than just that, though. It is also the cornerstone of a right-wing propaganda machine, a political factory spewing a pernicious alternative reality 24-hours a day. There are still a few legitimate, fact-driven reporters at Fox, some of who are excellent. But they are far out-shouted by partisan entertainers, pumping up audiences by trafficking in fear, division and sometimes downright falsehoods.
As the public increasingly regards all news media as equally irresponsible, and President Trump singles out the politically independent media for special attack, it’s no longer enough for responsible members of the press to ignore the corrosive reality. Unbiased reporters who do honest research-driven investigative journalism have to start drawing distinctions, and calling Fox and other irresponsible outlets out, by showing when their stories are shoddy, ideologically driven and false. According to the trusted, non-partisan organization Politifact, more than 68% of the news on Fox is either false, mostly false or half-true. Its stars, like Trump favorites Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham are not journalists; they are right wing demagogues who earn multi-million-dollar celebrity salaries for pumping lies into the public’s bloodstream.
As we learned from the false fusillade aimed at us by David Brock after the publication of “Strange Justice,” we and the partisan political outlets are not in the same business. Our north star is the truth. Theirs is political victory. There may be room for both, but there is no room at this dangerous point in American history for confusion about our very different professions.
The midterm elections are looming and could bring about change in the leadership of Congress. Jockeying for the next presidential election has already begun. Political journalism, which was flawed in 2016, could also return to its golden age.
But this, too, will require a renaissance in slow journalism. All of the candidates should be thoroughly vetted. Every aspect of their lives must be examined. Their donor networks and dark money sources must be exposed. In 2008, the Times did a series of great enterprise stories that were tethered together under the rubric “The Long Run.” The series deeply explored particular turning points in the candidates lives. They included Janny Scott’s revealing portrait of Obama’s relationship with his mother, Jodi Kantor’s investigation of the Obamas’ relationship with their controversial pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and Mitt Romney’s missionary years in France. In 2016, the Washington Post did a series of enterprise pieces on how each of the candidates made an important decision. The one on Donald Trump, by Marc Fisher, was especially revealing. It delved into his decision to star in The Apprentice. Unsurprisingly, after hearing the pitch from Mark Burnett, Trump made that decision in half an hour without consulting anyone. That one piece still reveals much about how Trump governs.
We need to turn away from covering politics like sports. It’s not a game. The saucy, inside baseball intrigue designed for political junkies is entertaining, but not nourishing.
We need to go back to knocking on voter’s doors and really listening. Not doing flyovers, but stationing political reporters full-time in the middle of the country. We need to revive the old tradition of having domestic bureaus that really report on the pulse of the country with bureaus like the ones the Times opened In Kansas City and Phoenix during Jill’s stint as managing editor. By focusing so much on polls and the horse race in 2016, many of us missed the tidal wave of anger and racial resentment among older, white voters who turned the election.
We need to turn away from covering politics like sports. It’s not a game. The saucy, inside baseball intrigue designed for political junkies is entertaining, but not nourishing. We’re not knocking Politico. In fact, Politico has become a great convert to slow journalism and investigative reporting. Our constitutional responsibility is to provide the public with credible information that helps voters in making their most important choice as citizens: who to vote for.
We are not marketing gurus, but we are certain that rigorous, fact-based investigative reporting is the best branding strategy for news organizations. It is nonpartisan journalism that is most special, and that differentiates the true quality publications.
“Is the truth loud enough?”
In his influential 2011 book, “The Filter Bubble,” Eli Pariser asked a question that has only become a more urgent since: “Is the truth loud enough?” It is up to us to make sure it is – not only by reporting and writing it — but also by differentiating it loudly and clearly from the rest of today’s growing partisan brawl.
About the Authors:
Jill Abramson is a political columnist for The Guardian and senior lecturer in the Department of English at Harvard University. She spent 17 years in the most senior editorial positions at The New York Times, where she was the first woman to serve as Washington Bureau Chief, Managing Editor and Executive Editor. Before joining the Times, she spent nine years at The Wall Street Journal as the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief and an investigative reporter covering money and politics. She is the author of three books including “Strange Justice”, which she co-authored with Jane Mayer.
Jane Mayer has been a New Yorker staff writer since 1995. She covers politics, culture, and national security for the magazine. Previously, she worked at the Wall Street Journal, where she covered the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, the Gulf War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1984, she became the paper’s first female White House correspondent. She is the author of the 2016 Times best-seller “Dark Money,” which the Times named as one of the ten best books of the year, and which began as a 2010 New Yorker piece about the Koch brothers’ deep influence on American politics. She also wrote the 2008 Times best-seller “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals,” which was based on her New Yorker articles. She is the co-author, with Jill Abramson, of “Strange Justice.”
About the Theodore H. White Lecture:
The Theodore H. White Lecture on Press and Politics commemorates the life of the reporter and historian who set the standard for contemporary political journalism and campaign coverage. Past lecturers include Rachel Maddow, Jill Lepore, Larry Wilmore, Nancy Gibbs, Alan K. Simpson, Ben Bradlee, Judy Woodruff, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Congressman John Lewis.
Tim Bailey, Director of Events and Fellows Program, Shorenstein Center
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Harvard Kennedy School or of Harvard University. Discussion Papers have not undergone formal review and approval. Such papers are included in this series to elicit feedback and to encourage debate on important issues and challenges in media, politics and public policy. Copyright belongs to the author(s). Papers may be downloaded for personal use only.